Ode to Emperor Xiang

《和项王歌》Ode to Emperor Xiang

汉兵已略地, The Han army has conquered our lands.
四面楚歌声。 Surrounded by the Songs of Chu on all sides.
大王意气尽, (My) emperor’s resolve is exhausted,
妃妾何聊生! How can I speak of living!

*These words follows the pronunciation of the original Peking opera and not modern Chinese pronunciation.
**妃妾(concubine/ consort) has been chosen in view of its use in Peking opera to substitute the less poetic original ‘贱妾’.
Poetry by 虞姬Consort Yu.
Translation by Albert Tay.

The Peking opera 霸王别姬 (literally the conquerer bids farewell to his concubine) is based on a famous historical figure known as项羽(Xiang Yu) (232 B.C.- 202 B.C.). Xiang Yu, later known as 西楚霸王 (Hegemon-King of Western Chu) fell in love and took虞姬Yu Ji as his wife. She accompanied him on his various battles to gain control of China against his ally-turned-enemy刘邦(Liu Bang). The latter eventually defeated Xiang and founded the Han Dynasty.

In the final Battle of Gaixia, the Han soldiers that surrounded Xiang and his army began singing folk songs from Xiang’s native land of Chu. Xiang Yu, filled with despair begins to drink and expresses his sorrow with the following song.

《垓下歌》Song of Gaixia

力拔山兮氣蓋世。 I have the strength to pick up mountains and my might conquers the world;
時不利兮騅不逝。 But I have fallen unto hard times and Zhui (the name of Xiang’s horse) runs no more;
騅不逝兮可奈何! When Zhui runs no more,
What can I do!
虞兮虞兮奈若何! (Consort) Yu, Yu,
What fate awaits you!

Translation by Albert Tay

In response to Xiang, Consort Yu performed a sword dance and sang a verse, the 和项王歌 (Ode to Emperor Xiang), before committing suicide. Conceived with theatrical elements in mind, it is written specially for Su Yiwen (Soprano) who during the conception of this work, expressed a predilection for femme fatale characters. The composition contains allusions to war, serialism, Peking opera influences as well as influences from traditional Chinese paintings – in particular, the work employs the musical equivalent of 留白, literally ‘leaving white spaces’ and intentionally avoids the minute-detailed notation of contemporary music to create some ‘white spaces’ for performers to paint and extend their creativity & musical imagination.

Ode to Emperor Xiang was premiered on 10 March 2014 by Su Yiwen and Jeremy Wong (Pianist) at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Lee Foundation Theatre.

Albert Tay
10 March 2014

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